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'Ultimate masterpiece': Van Eyck drawing— rarely seen due to fragility—goes on display for first time in a decade

Exhibited from today at Dresden’s Kupferstich-Kabinett, the picture of an old man is the only undisputed drawing by the Dutch Old Master that survives

Jan van Eyck, Bildnis eines älteren Mannes (picture of an old man, 1435-40) © Kupferstich-Kabinett, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Foto: Herbert Boswank

A rare drawing by Jan van Eyck is to be put on public display for the first time in ten years as a highlight in an exhibition at Dresden’s Kupferstich-Kabinett to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the museum of prints and drawings.

The silverpoint drawing of an old man, dating from 1435-40, is “the ultimate masterpiece,” says Stephanie Buck, the director of the Kupferstich-Kabinett. “We can’t show it very often” because of its fragility. It is the only undisputed drawing by van Eyck that survives and is “certainly the only one that was preparatory to a painting,” Buck says.

When the drawing was last shown in 2010, it was just for a week. This time it will on display for a month, from today to 13 July, at Dresden’s royal Residential Palace, alongside more than 200 other works from three centuries of collecting at the museum. About 60 drawings from the show, including the van Eyck, will travel to New York for an exhibition at the Morgan Library next year.

“It will be the first time it’s ever been on a plane,” Buck says.

The drawing was probably one of about 200 in an album that became part of the Dresden collection in 1774. It was a preparatory study for a painting now in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum that was once believed to portray Niccolò Albergati, a cardinal and diplomat credited with smoothing relations between France and England during the 100 Years’ War. This theory is now deemed improbable and the sitter’s identity is unknown.

To the left of the man’s face, van Eyck wrote 16 lines of notes have been deciphered with ultra-violet light to reveal precise colour notations for the face – including grey beard stubble that is not on the drawing but appears in the painting.

Other works in the Dresden exhibition, which is supported by the Sparkasse financial group, include a large-format paper installation by Monika Grzymala as well as drawings by Bernardo Bellotto, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Caspar David Friedrich, Otto Dix, Oskar Kokoschka, Pablo Picasso and Gerhard Richter. The show, called 300 Years Keeping in the Present, runs until 14 September.